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Ivy Style at FIT 
The Yale Whiffenpoofs at Mory's Temple Bar, 1942.

Ivy Style at FIT

By Christian Chensvold

 

The Fashion Institute of Technology presents a tribute to the alluring need for a wardrobe containing chinos, loafers, and tweed.

In the world of fashion, classics have a high bar to cross. What begins as a fleeting trend must exhibit taste and timelessness to earn a place as a perennial favorite.

The duality of innovation and tradition is surely the reason for the enduring appeal of the Ivy League look, that quintessentially American genre of menswear that was refined in the mid-1950s to sixties, and has remained a mainstream staple of a gentleman’s wardrobe since. This fall, the style is being celebrated in a first-ever museum exhibition and accompanying tome. On September 14, New York City’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology will debut Ivy Style, which charts the history—as well as the continued relevance—of the preppy, Northeastern uniform of penny loafers, oxford shirts, rep ties, madras pants, Shetland sweaters, and tweed sack jackets.

Ivy Style at FIT 
1948 photograph of the Kennedy family at Thanksgiving, with Pat Kennedy wearing a sweatshirt with the Harvard “H.”
 

The exhibition was stewarded by the Museum at FIT’s deputy director, Patricia Mears, who says the show is unusual not only because it is focused on menswear, but also because it is zeitgeist-driven. A few years ago, Mears took note of the preponderance of blogs on preppy style and the media buzz surrounding the republication of the Japanese photo book Take Ivy, which documents the clothing and lifestyle of Ivy League college students in the 1960s. Mears says she discovered “real men in real environments, wearing things beautifully with individual character. This information was out there; I just happened to stumble across it, and felt that the Museum at FIT was a great environment to present it. I hope I’ve created a setting for voices to be heard and objects to be seen by a large, museum-going audience more accustomed to seeing high-style women’s clothing.”

There’s something very gratifying in knowing that the world has seen fit to acknowledge the Ivy approach to dress as one of America’s great contributions to global style.

Ivy Style focuses on three main periods: the interwar years of the 1920s and thirties; the boom years of the fifties and sixties, when the look achieved nationwide popularity among students, professionals, musicians, and actors, including Miles Davis, Steve McQueen, and Robert Redford; and the revival from the eighties to the present. The exhibition, which runs through January 5, consists of vintage garments presented on mannequins—including some 100-year-old specimens from Brooks Brothers—as well as photographic ephemera and an array of vintage collegiate props. Display areas will evoke campus settings such as dormitories and college quadrangles.

Consultants on the project include Dartmouth alum Richard Press, the grandson of J. Press founder Jacobi Press and former president of his family’s company, along with menswear historian G. Bruce Boyer, who was a student in the early sixties at Pennsylvania’s Moravian College, one of the nation’s oldest.

Ivy Style at FIT 
(Left) Clothing on display for Ivy Style at the Museum at FIT. (Right) From left: Golfers Jess Sweetser, Gene Sarazen, and Walter Hagen, ca. 1920.
 

“I’ve always found Ivy League clothes inspirational, exuberant, and comfortable—clothes that mix formality with casualness, propriety with color, and tradition with utility,” says Boyer. “In our particularly democratic way, such clothes deserve this recognition, and there’s something very gratifying in knowing that the world has seen fit to acknowledge the Ivy approach to dress as one of America’s great contributions to global style.”

Immersing herself in the topic has been exciting for Mears. She was especially inspired by magazine articles on Princeton students in the 1930s. “I realized how cutting-edge, fashionable, and chic these men were, within an environment they had created themselves,” Mears says. “In its heyday—both before World War II, when it was really high style, and young men would take classics and twist them to lead fashion in a new way, and also when it became more mainstream in the fifties—Ivy was very innovative. The fact that it was a moving and happening fashion style was the greatest revelation.”

Ivy Style will be on view from September 14, 2012 to January 5, 2013 at the Museum at FIT.

After writing the story “Ivy League Jazz” for RL Magazine in 2008, Christian Chensvold was inspired to start the website Ivy-Style.com (http://Ivy-Style.com). He is a contributor to the Museum at FIT’s book and exhibition.

  • Pictures of Yale clubs and societies, ca. 1850-1980 (inclusive). Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University
  • © John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
  • (Left) Images courtesy of The Museum at FIT (Right) © Augusta National/Getty Images